“My compliments, Mr. Bellows!” declared the sandy-haired man, his voice cultured and smooth. “Ye have seen to our supplies most efficiently. Will we be down the Avon in time to catch the evening tide?”– The Day the Pirates Went Mad, Chapter 3: Decision Made, pg 15.
Historical World Building
When writing historical fiction, your world building has largely already been done for you. It’s like you’re writing your story in another author’s setting. Or, more accurately, in a world shared by many authors telling many different tales of adventure, intrigue, and daily life.
To me, this is one of the most interesting things about writing historical fiction. You get to find out new things, more details about old things, and discover cross-connections and consequences that are often ‘stranger than any fiction’.
But, like many large projects conducted over a very long time, the information has been compiled by many different people and stored in many different places. So although it’s already generally understood how things work and why they are the way they are, you still have to work hard to pull back the many layers to find the details you need.
Then you must determine what is relevant to your story and what level of detail to actually include. And, since you are writing fiction, also what to ignore, modify, or add in order to tell your story without breaking the feeling of authenticity.
A good example from The Day the Pirates Went Mad is the city of Bristol.
Although we’re introduced to Emma in the port city of Falmouth, this is in fact the beginning of her second voyage. On her way to her ship, Emma thinks back to how she came to be sailing aboard the New Adventure, and we shift to Bristol.
In researching details about Bristol, I had two different requirements:
- To compile general information to help with contextual descriptions
- To answer specific ‘did they have this?’ or ‘what was the way they did that?’ questions
In the first case, I didn’t need to make any changes to the information I dug up. It was like name-dropping. For example, Bristol Castle was slighted by Oliver Cromwell after defeating Prince Rupert, a Royalist who had a very active career on both land and sea. He was also the namesake for Rupert’s Land in Canada. Mentioning that John Cabot departed from Bristol to explore westward, and hopefully find a route to China, is in the same vein.
In the second case, I was looking for historical examples of things that I wanted to use directly or to have my own fictional version. An example of the former was Newgate Prison. I needed a prison that debtors would be sent to and preferably to have it nearby. I also needed to understand its manner of operation and conditions during the years of interest.
Another example of this applies to the fictional orphanage that Emma is sent to: the Conway Home for Girls and Boys (aka Conway House). I needed to understand what was done with parentless children during the time. Were there orphanages? Who ran them? And what happened to the children as they grew up?
Sometimes you find surprises that can add a bit of flavour or even change your original vision. This was the case with the Bristol Coporation of the Poor and the Merchant Venturers Society. I happily referenced both.
Down the Avon
The fact that Bristol is not actually an ocean port was also a surprise. I have long known Bristol to be a major port for sea-going voyages, but until writing The Day the Pirates Went Mad, I never realized that to get to the ocean one needed to travel down the River Avon!
And that’s what’s behind the line in the quote above. 🙂